7 Things You Should Know Before Taking a Greenland Cruise
From picking the right ship and itinerary to what to expect when it comes to weather and wildlife, cruising along the coast of Greenland can be both wonderful and unpredictable. Here’s what to know before you go.
The chance to kayak between bobbing bits of electric-blue icebergs, experience traditional Greenlandic customs, spot the northern lights, hike along rugged fjords, and scan the horizon for whales—these are some of the reasons travel to Greenland has been growing steadily for the past two decades (not including during the pandemic).
Granted, it’s not an easy country to get around. Because Greenland is so vast and most of its communities aren’t connected by roads (locals get around by boat, bush plane, or sled dog team), one of the most convenient ways to see the country is on an expedition cruise.
Having just sailed with Scenic Cruises to Greenland, I’ve been asked myriad questions from curious travelers, ranging from “Is it really covered in ice?” to “What do you do on a cruise to Greenland?” With those inquiries (and others) in mind, here are some of the things that are useful to know before booking a cruise to Greenland.
Understand the basics
Greenland is one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. It is an 836,330-square-mile island—larger than Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Maine combined. However, only about 57,000 people live there (nearly 90 percent of whom are Indigenous), and most residents are concentrated in a handful of cities along the western coast.
The cruising season for Greenland is rather short—the bulk of all sailings are in July, August, and September, due to high concentrations of icebergs. And though roughly 80 percent of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet (the world’s largest, outside of Antarctica), in the summer, the fjords are awash in green moss and grasses and dotted with wildflowers like fireweed and buttercups.
Choose the right operator (and itinerary) for you
A number of cruise companies have started offering sailings to Greenland in recent years. The majority are small expedition brands, with space enough for 100 to 300 guests onboard, including such lines as Lindblad, Hurtigruten, Adventure Canada, Quark, and Scenic. Some larger cruise lines, like Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line, occasionally sail here, as well.
The embarkation and disembarkation ports, the duration of the sailing, and the ship’s icebreaking capabilities are among the factors that will dictate where travelers will be able to go. Some itineraries focus on the more populated western coast, where travelers can visit local communities, interact with residents, and shop for handicrafts. Others center around the rugged, wild eastern coast, where daily activities revolve around outdoor pursuits and maneuvering among the scenic ice. Longer journeys may tackle both.
If you’re on a sailing that spotlights the western coast, you’ll typically pull into port towns in the morning and will have the option to sign up for an organized day trip or to noodle around the area by yourself for the day. These are some of the highlights of a western sailing:
- Nuuk: The largest city, where roughly a third of all people in Greenland live, is a popular stop, as it offers a small clutch of museums, a performing arts center, restaurants and bars, handicraft stores, and supermarkets.
- Narsaq: Not far from Nuuk is this tiny sheep-herding and fishing community.
- Ilulissat: Here passengers can visit a UNESCO-protected ice fjord that is home to one of the most active glaciers in the world.
Sailings on the eastern coast of Greenland don’t typically pull into port. Instead, passengers load into 10-person inflatable dinghies known as Zodiacs to putter around floating bits of iceberg or to head to land for a hike. On the eastern side, spotting wildlife, including foxes, Arctic hares, seals, and shore birds, is more common. And because itineraries are more flexible, ships can stay put a little longer to watch nature unfold, like a glacier calving or pod of humpback whales bubble netting (where whales blow bubbles to confuse and trap fish for their podmates to eat). Decide which type of itinerary speaks most to you and opt for a sailing that aims to meet it.
Pick the right ship for your needs and wants
Another thing to consider is ship size. Smaller vessels can visit harder to reach places and offer guests a more intimate experience both on and off the ship. However, larger ships often have more onboard amenities, like spas, multiple dining rooms, and toys like helicopters and submarines that can showcase a different side of the destination. Deciding what are must-have amenities can help narrow your options.
Manage your nature viewing expectations
While it is possible to see showstoppers like polar bears and the northern lights while sailing in Greenland, there’s no guarantee. Polar bears, for instance, are mostly concentrated in northern and eastern Greenland, typically in areas only accessible to ships with icebreaking capabilities. So, if missing out on seeing polar bears would disappoint you, perhaps consider a trip to Svalbard instead, where there’s a higher concentration of the bears. And because Greenland sees the midnight sun, it’s often too bright to see aurora borealis displays until late-season sailings (generally September, but potentially August). However, there are cruises, mostly in Norway, that cater to travelers looking to see a solar show.
Know what to pack
Despite many cruise companies emphasizing the need for polar gear, you might find that Greenland is warmer than you thought. In July through September, the average minimum temperature is in the low 40 degrees, while the average high is in the mid to upper 50s. As a Coloradian, I could get away with wearing hiking trousers and a flannel shirt for most outings on our early August sailing, though my Georgia-based travel companion typically added long underwear and a puffy jacket.
While your base and mid-layers involve personal preferences, there are a couple of non-negotiable items you’ll need. Here’s a short list of essential packing items:
- A set of windproof and waterproof coats and pants: important for rides in Zodiacs, to protect from sea spray
- A good pair of tall, waterproof boots: You’ll likely need to do wet landings when going ashore in remote areas (meaning there’s a chance of getting splashed by the tide when the Zodiac brings you to the beach) and there’s also potential for walking in snow. Some operators provide boots for guests, so be sure to check ahead of time. If not, look into options like Xtratuf or Hunter.
- Sunglasses: particularly important in snow or ice-covered areas because the sun’s rays are reflected
- Sunscreen: the days can be long and quite sunny
Be prepared for unpredictable ice and weather
While Greenland has seen dramatic changes at the hands of climate change in recent years, with diminishing glaciers and warmer temperatures, there is still ample ice, which can greatly affect what you’re able to see and do on your sailing.
If there’s too much ice around the shore, there’s a chance you won’t be able to make landings. It could also affect Zodiac rides and kayaking excursions. Because the ice rolls as it melts and the larger part of the mass is underwater, it’s dangerous to get too close, so some expedition leaders may scrap water-based activities entirely, too, if there’s excess ice.
Similarly, due to the mixing of coastal breezes and ice, fog is frequent (and thick) in Greenland. Because there’s the risk of polar bears (the only type of bear that will actively hunt humans), cruise companies won’t make landings if it’s foggy (or raining so hard it affects visibility), so depending on the weather, you may end up spending a few days on the ship if you’re on the eastern side of the country. Ditto for situations where the wind is making the water too choppy to safely navigate Zodiacs. Really any weather event that could put guests in danger (from the elements or from polar bears) means more time on the ship.
Come with an open mind
Typically, cruise companies will work with local tour operators to arrange for cultural experiences with Greenlandic people for cruise passengers. That could include a traditional kaffeemik (an afternoon coffee and cake meet-up), a historical walking tour, a craft beer tasting with the local brewmaster, and beyond. You might have the opportunity to dine on local food. That can include meals that wouldn’t be uncommon in parts of the USA, like halibut, snow crab, herring, or lamb. It may also include proteins that visitors might find upsetting, such as polar bear, narwhal, and whale.
In Greenland, it is legal for Indigenous people to harvest a certain number of these animals on a yearly basis for subsistence purposes. It’s also an important part of their culture.
Greenland is a harsh environment where it’s too cold for most food to grow, so locals have long had to make do with what is available to them as a means of survival. You may find it helpful to remember that Greenlandic Inuit believe in wasting no part of the animals they harvest and taking only what is necessary. However, if you find this aspect of the experience disconcerting, this may not be the right cruise for you.